19 DECEMBER 1981, Page 16

Britain and the bomb

SoIly Zuckerman

Next month The Nuclear Illusion and Reality, by Lord Zuckerman, is to be published by Collins. The following extracts are taken from the book's final chapter.

Harold Macmillan once observed that politicians have to run hard to catch up with the scientists. But if their goal is peace, then politicians are in the wrong race. The scientists who work in the defence departments of governments, or in defence industry, are not apostles of peace. Political and military leaders should cease seeking shelter behind the backs of those 'experts' who take what is usually called the harder line. In the 20 years since the first major effort was made to bring the nuclear arms race to an end, masses of water have flowed under the bridge. If the bridge itself is not to become submerged, the politicians will have to take charge of the technical men.

This will not be easy. Whatever the President of the United States may want to see happen, he has to carry the Senate with him. The Senators, in turn, are under pressure from military chiefs, from industry, and from their constituents. And while the military chiefs may have to defer to the President as their commander-inchief, they also have their own constituents to deal with: the men below them in the service hierarchies, and in the industries to which part of the defence vote is always committed. I do not know what the position is in the USSR, and what influence the Russian military may have on the Secretary of the Party and on the Central Committee. In the United Kingdom we are relatively fortunate. The Prime Minister, with the majority party behind him, has all the authority he or she needs to take decisions where national security is concerned. In 1960 Harold Macmillan was personally committed to the achievement of a comprehensive test ban. In declaring his position publicly, it was not necessary for him to seek the assent either of his Chiefs of Staff or of the heads of the country's weapons laboratories.

It will take years before the great powers start living in peace. They never will unless several other things happen first. Above all, the nuclear threat must be reduced, and for that to come about the goal should be a halt to all Research and Development designed to elaborate new nuclear warheads and new means of delivery. Correspondingly, an effort should be made to end all work, however vain it might be, to devise antiballistic missile defences. Even if such systems could never prove significant in the reduction of 'unacceptable' destruction, suspicion is generated by the fact that Research and Development to devise such systems (and counter-systems) continues. As a result the nuclear balance becomes 'destabilised'.

Neither the USA's nor the USSR's present negotiating position would be strengthened by adding still further to the size and variety of their respective arsenals (each of which represents far more destructive power than the rest of the armouries of the world put together). Adding more would be akin to doubling the dose of a poison, for which there is no antidote, which was already ten times above the lethal level. Without either side lowering its guard, there is therefore no logical reason why the USSR and the USA should wait until they cease to suspect each other's intentions before they start the process of bilaterally reducing their battlefield nuclear forces. In a rational world, a state of political détente would not be a necessary condition for a start to the process of a 'balanced reduction' of nuclear arms, although a political détente would certainly help.

The failure of the disarmament talks of the past 30 years to achieve any significant results has led in several countries to campaigns for unilateral disarmament, a term which is normally taken to imply unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the United Kingdom this goal was once, and is again, officially part of the political platform of • the Labour Party although, when in power, which means 17 of the 36 postwar years, it took no steps to implement its declared policy (some might regard it as ironical that it was a Labour government which decided that Britain should become an independent nuclear power). Aneurin Bevan, one of the most significant and engaging of Labour politicians, and a man whose death transformed British politics, once upheld the cause of unilateral disarmament, in contrast to Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of his party and, for a time, a bitter opponent. When the two became reconciled, Bevan, to the dismay of his admirers and followers, argued at the 1957 Labour Party conference against unilateral nuclear disarmament, declaring that were the Labour Party to achieve power on the basis of such a policy, it would be sending a Foreign Secretary, whoever he might be, 'naked into the conference chamber'. 'We want to have the opportunity', he went on to say, 'of interposing between the two giants, modifying, moderating, and mitigating influence . . . it is not just a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed.'

But even if the possession of nuclear weapons has not yet yielded the influence which Aneurin Bevan hoped for, there are powerful reasons why Britain should not espouse the cause of unilateral disarmament. I say this at the same time as I respect the sincerity of many who, like E. P. Thompson, are now in the forefront of the organised movement to bring about unilateral disarmament. I do not have in mind the moral argument, to which there can be no answer. I am fully sensitive to the moral objections to weapons of mass destruction.

Had a reliable clairvoyant been present to foretell the value the British nuclear arsenal would have in assuring the UK's position in the world, or whether it would help arrest the decline in our economic and political power, I wonder if Bevan would have made his plea. Britain's possession of nuclear weapons has not yet made any obvious difference to the effectiveness of her voice in the conference chamber, where at times we have certainly been outshone by others who do not belong to the nuclear club.

Nuclear weapons exist. The knowledge of how to make them exists, and cannot be made to vanish. The United Kingdom contributed greatly to the success of the scientific and technological effort which produced the first nuclear weapons. We may now be overshadowed and perhaps disregarded by the two super-powers, but we are nonetheless a founder member of the nuclear weapons club. These are the basic facts. What I cannot see is the practical benefit of abandoning what we have, whereas I do see certain disadvantages.

First, it is claimed that were we to abandon or even reduce our relatively small armoury (small in terms of numbers, not in that of destructive power), others would follow suit, at the same time as some countries which might otherwise go nuclear would, as a result of the United Kingdom's example, desist from such a step. The question that needs to be asked is, which countries? Surely not the USA and the USSR, who will clearly decide their policies with respect to disarmament by themselves, and not in response to any gesture that the UK alone might make? Had NATO's forwardbased systems not been totally separated from strategic systems in the SALT negotiations — as though tactical and strategic were different, either in terms of yield, or range, or effects — the position might have been otherwise. But they were separated, and we were not in the conference chamber.

A second reason — among others — which is advanced in favour of unilateral disarmament is that were we to divest ourselves of our nuclear weapons, we would be less likely to be a target in the event of a nuclear war. This is wishful thinking. Were such a war ever to erupt, we would still be part of NATO, and in the light of presumed Russian military doctrine, it would be idle to suppose that we would be immune from attack. Associated with this idea is the mounting opposition both in the United Kingdom and in other NATO countries to the proposal to station here the two new American nuclear weapon systems: Cruise and Pershing II. As I understand it, the argument — again, apart from the moral issue — is that deploying these new systems would accelerate the nuclear arms race, at the same time as it would make it all the more likely that the countries that accepted the new weapons would become targets in case of nuclear attack. I can see point in the first argument, but none in the second. Were nuclear weapons ever to be used in a war between the NATO and Warsaw Pact powers, we would all be targets. We would all be destroyed. Moreover, not even neutral Switzerland or neutral Sweden would be immune from the effects of a nuclear exchange on the European mainland. Fallout and the dislocation of production and communications in other countries would affect all — some obviously more than others — but nonetheless all. Those who go further and argue that the United Kingdom should withdraw from NATO should ask themselves, what then? Whatever its military value, our withdrawal from NATO would force all the Continental powers, including the United Kingdom, either independently or as part of the European Economic Community, to come to terms with the USSR. Henry Kissinger has always been an ardent supporter of NATO, and he is certainly no conventional American isolationist. One should remember his 1979 remark that the European allies of the United States should not keep asking the USA 'to multiply strategic assurances that we cannot possibly mean or if we do mean, we should not want to execute because if we execute we risk the destruction of civilisation'.

Some unilateralists might, of course, argue that were European states to come to terms with the USSR separately and independently of the USA, in the acceptance of her right to try to make her socialist world and that of her allies flourish — even to spread her influence — this would be preferable to the prospect of nuclear war. This is not an issue which is relevant to my argument.

On the positive side, there are good reasons why we should retain our nuclear arsenal and which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been deployed. Paradoxically its continued possession could help in the process of world disarmament, not because we might be allowed to argue the case in the conference chamber, but because the scale of what we have, and what the French have, is an indication to the two super-powers of the forces that are adequate to maintain a deterrent threat. The Americans and the Russians have allowed themselves to be blindly impelled along in a senseless nuclear arms race which has no finishing post. This is the message that should be broadcast, together with a corollary that nuclear parity or sufficiency, as Liddell Hart argued 20 years ago, leads to nuclear nullity; that there can be no such thing as nuclear superiority; that no country could regard a nuclear exchange as a realistic band in the spectrum of military options. In 1950, when Truman was President, the idea of using nuclear weapons in Korea was considered, when MacArthur's forces were driven back from the Yalu. Mr Attlee went to see the President to dissuade him, and for that and no doubt other reasons, the plan was rejected. The same thing happened in 1954, during the Eisenhower administration, when the question of using nuclear weapons to raise the siege of Dien Bien Phu was debated.

In February 1970 Americans engaged in a 'brief but heated flurry of debate' over the desirability of using nuclear weapons to raise the siege of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam war — but again desisted. Both the USA and the USSR recoiled from the idea of a nuclear exchange in the Cuban crisis. But at the same time there have been scores of wars since the advent of nuclear weapons. The nuclear arsenals of the great powers have not prevented them. Nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon systems are not weapons of war. Whenever their use has been contemplated, the idea has been abandoned. Not only are they not weapons of war, but the amount of military input into complex nuclear systems is all but minimal, with a complementary increase in the technical input provided by the nonmilitary man. As I put it in 1961: 'No military genius or experience went into the conception or design of inter-continental ballistic missiles. There is no logical need for such a weapon to be deployed by the military as opposed to some agent of government. If the name of Moscow or New York or London or Paris were written on each ICBM, the missiles might well be deployed and operated by the firms which produced them.' Today this applies just as much to Cruise missiles, or Pershing Ils, or SS20s, as it did to the ICBMs of 20 years ago. Far from increasing the number of options open to the military man, nuclear weapon systems weigh him down.

The United Kingdom has decided to 'update' or 'modernise' its nuclear armoury. If this is something the country can afford, it will make, as I have said, little difference to our deterrent status; it will not increase the `credibility' of our deterrent force. It will hardly make the Russians more fearful of us tomorrow than they are today, any more than there is cause for a rational UK citizen to be more fearful of Russian nuclear power today than he was 20 years ago, by when the United Kingdom could already have been wiped out in a single blow. If the argument is that our present Polaris submarines will have `worn out' by 1990, and that we need to continue as a nuclear power to the year 2000 and beyond, then I would say that we should despair for the Western world if by that time discussion and negotiations about East-West and NorthSouth political and economic relations have not taken on a non-warlike tone. Nor can I imagine that the possession of a few Trident missile submarines will help Britain to discover a new role in the world to replace that which she enjoyed when we were still a vast empire, to echo the hurtful gibe made by the late Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State in Truman's administration.

Our nuclear effort makes sense only because our nuclear boats and aircraft are assigned to NATO within the implicit framework of the concept of minimal deterrence. Not for one second do I believe that it is Britain's nuclear power that deters the USSR from taking action so hostile to our interests that they would drive us to independent nuclear action, any more than I believe that the democratic process accords any Western political leader — and our leaders do not usually achieve power because of the votes of a majority of the electorate — the right to initiate a nuclear war, and incinerate not only their share of the electorate, but also those by whom he or she may have been opposed. What would be left of Europe and the USSR after an allout nuclear exchange would not have been worth fighting for. Nor would there have been any justification for the price that the USA would have had to pay for coming to Europe's aid.

If the UK is to discover a new role in the nuclear world, if we are to resurrect the kind of international strategic influence that was last exercised, even if only with limited success, in the final years of Harold Macmillan's ministry, we shall need to remind ourselves continuously that if anything is going to inhibit the Russians from launching an invasion into NATO Europe, it will be NATO's conventional forces; and that so long as detente is merely a word and not a process, such resources as NATO's European members can command should be devoted to strengthening these forces. Were we to improve and add to those that are already deployed in the defence of Europe, we would be certain to play a far more influential role in the defence of the free world than we now do. The technological skills that go to nuclear weapons could be used to increase the Research and Development that are devoted to conventional armaments. Such a move would do far more to add to the real military options open to NATO in fending off attack than could ever be done by increasing the number of weapons in the Western nuclear armoury, all of which, whatever their nature, carry the risk of triggering an all-out nuclear war. The concept of nuclear deterrence, of nuclear parity, has no reality unless it is backed with adequate conventional forces. If one reads between the lines of what those Western intelligence experts and armchair nuclear strategists write about disparities in the numbers of troops we and our possible enemies deploy, this is something that is clearly understood by the Warsaw Pact powers.

© Lord Zuckerman